A few weeks before Israel's independence was proclaimed, the authorities of the state-in-the-making created a body to judge and punish draft evaders. It is usually thought that everyone back then was itching to be mobilized to the Haganah, the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces, so at first it seemed there would be no need to consider measures against shirkers - because there would be none. It turned out that what is nowadays considered a new phenomenon - "Tel Avivan," "post-Zionist," "the bubble syndrome" - needed to be dealt with already in the War of Independence. In April 1948, with the war at its height, a "high court" was created to try evaders. Anat Stern, a doctoral student in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, spoke on this subject at the annual conference of the Israeli Organization for History and Law, which was held this week at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.

The "court" was a voluntary community body, but it operated until September 1948, four months after the state's establishment. The judges were politicians: Levi Eshkol, later prime minister; Binyamin Avniel, Baba Idelson, and Yosef Serlin, who was afterward a Knesset member. They were joined by several well-known lawyers.

All told, nearly 80 suspects were tried. The principal punishment was to make public their shameful behavior, but the "court" also sentenced a few to fines and even prison. Stern described them in cautious terms: "The concept of the obligation of the country's young people to be drafted into the fighting forces was not always clear to all of them, and in some cases the personal considerations of the draftees overcame the national need." In other words, they didn't feel like it. A few of them were sons of respected people. Two of them were the sons of Yisrael Mani, a judge in Tel Aviv District Court during the British Mandate period; the two went abroad.

Their social status is relevant, because contrary to the fundamental principles of law, not only evaders were brought to trial. In one of every three cases, their parents were also tried, usually the father. Judge Mani, too, was put on trial. This was a salient expression of the basic collectivist, quasi-tribal values that guided the society. In the militant atmosphere that prevails in present-day Israel over the rise in the number of young people who do not do army service, it will not come as a surprise if someone proposes that the "court" be re-established.

Fidel's scoop

Fidel Castro spent a hundred hours talking to the French journalist Ignacio Ramonet, whose book about the Cuban leader has now been published in Hebrew. But Castro kept the biggest scoop for himself. In an article he published this week in his party journal, Granma, Castro claims that in 1984 Cuba saved the life of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Cuba, he says, gave the United States information about a plot to assassinate Reagan during a presidential visit to South Carolina. The information was complete, Castro says: the identity of the plotters, who were members of a far-right organization, the date, the type of weapon. The FBI arrested the conspirators and thanked Cuba for its help, Castro relates.

There is something captivating, almost mischievous, about an aging despot dictating to a journalist almost 500 pages about all the good things he did for his nation, and then publishing the scoop himself. "Fidel: Autobiography" (Hebrew-language version, Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing House; the English-language edition is due out next February) takes a question-and-answer form. Expectably, Castro is pleased with himself. Ramonet treats him courteously. One can imagine how many committees vetted this sterile text before it was authorized for publication, but it is nevertheless of interest. Castro was one of the most fascinating leaders of the 20th century and is today the world's longest-serving ruler. Ramonet appears to have caught him almost at the last moment of his life.

As we approach the 45th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, Castro's attitude toward the two protagonists of the crisis, Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy, is worthy of note. Looking back, he is more sympathetic toward Kennedy. Khrushchev managed the crisis without consulting Castro, and that upsets him to this day: he refuses to forgive. It's a matter of honor.

Who killed Mohammed al-Dura?

Mohammed al-Dura died on October 1, 2000, and his death gave the Palestinian people a national symbol. He was a boy who was killed in his father's arms, near the Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim, apparently by Israeli army fire. A television cameraman from France 2 filmed the event, and in the history of the struggle between the Zionist myth and the Palestinian myth there are few images as shocking as these. Naturally, many have tried to prove that the images were fabricated, an effort that persists to this day.

This week, a Paris court was to continue hearing the appeal of a man who claimed in a blog that the event was staged. France 2 sued him for libel. The man, Philippe Karsenty, lost, and this week his appeal is being heard. In Israel, too, there were some who tried to prove that the boy was not killed by the IDF. Magistrate's Court Judge Shoshana Almagor found that this "investigation" was unprofessional and unscientific.

There is something pathetic about the effort to prove that France 2 fabricated the story, as though this could demonstrate the justness of the Israeli occupation. Not a few Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli army gunfire without their deaths being filmed. Be that as it may, these images have by now assumed a mythological viability that is no longer dependent on the question of whether what they seem to show actually happened.

However, the officials in charge of Israel's media image are not giving up. Ahead of the hearing in the Paris appeal, the deputy IDF Spokesman, Colonel Shlomi Am-Shalom, asked the France 2 correspondent in Israel, Charles Enderlin, to give him the raw footage that was taken during the event, about 20 minutes of film. That is something like the army asking a journalist to hand over his notes. France 2 responded coldly: it is waiting for the judgment of the court in Paris.

Quotation

"If someone had said this 10 years ago - no, even five or three or two years! Serious people would have rejected such a remark dryly. At the time it was a matter of physical exercise, excessively alert, for young men or laughable sports buffs. Whereas today one finds respectable people, not young, speeding along on their bicycles on the streets of the city, with perfectly serious faces. Many are still ashamed, of course, when they are caught riding the bicycles, because they still face a world of prejudice. Perhaps there are even some valiant men who are asking themselves whether they can still submit their candidacy for the city council after having been seen on a bicycle [...] In another few years, no one will think twice about it."

The man who was so enthused about bicycles - in 1896 - and identified them with his vision for a new and better world, wrote a pamphlet that year entitled "The Jewish State." A year later he said, "If you will it, it is no legend." Herzl's article in praise of bicycles is included in a volume of his stories, published (in Hebrew) by the Zionist Library.